Deep Dive Reading


“Ugh! If it’s classic is has to be bad!”

So many times I see people saying that they hated this or that book when they read it in school, or that the book was for ever ruined for them by being assigned reading.

To be countered by readers who say that they never would have tried various authors if they hadn’t had to in school, and that a great teacher taught them how to read in depth.

I’m already afraid of the way higher education is trending–squeezing out reading literature at all in high school, and limiting literature classes in colleges in favor of expanding business ed– but that’s another discussion.

And I do think that books can be badly taught, what with emphasis on tests, memorization, grades. Or being told to find thirty similes and twenty-five metaphors, six examples of Man Vs. Nature and ten of Man vs. Man–that kind of grinding assignment could kill any interest in the best book ever, and while it forces the student to comb through the text, more often than not they are totally missing the sense of it.

Counterbalancing that are the instructors who are passionate about literature and who can convey that passion to their students, who then banish the fear of great literature, or reading deeply, and send their students off maybe not with a marketable skill, but with a lifelong love of books.

But passion can work against you when you are told what you are to think.

I got in trouble in high school for writing a paper on the homoeroticism in Billy Budd. The many quotes I pulled seemed to make the instructor–who loved the book, but felt there was one true interpretation–madder. I was supposed to see a Christ analogy, which I didn’t, because I thought Budd was a sap. A pretty one, but he wasn’t changing anyone’s paradigm. I know my teen self was callow, but in trying to force me to give up my own view of the book and adopt his, the teacher wasn’t teaching me to analyze literature so much as to parrot his ideas.

We all know that the idea of assigned reading is to broaden one’s knowledge as well as to hone one’s reading skills. Classroom literary analysis is like exercise—you do it so you’ll be better at doing other things.

Of course if you love doing the form of exercise, it changes everything. Also if you love exploratory reading, you are more likely to venture out of your comfort zone, which is another motivation behind assigned reading.

I think learning to talk about one’s reading in a setting where there is no competition, and everyone’s ideas are valid, is the ideal. During my teenage years I walked miles once a month in the dusty L.A. heat, and took all-day bus rides, just to gather at various people’s homes to discuss mythopoeic literature, because at that time, few in my immediate environment loved it like I did.

I have always enjoyed reading about others’ reading in letters and autobiographies. What did other writers find in books that I’ve read—did we like or dislike it for similar reasons? Though I enjoy reading literary criticism, my own readerly inclinations lean toward immersion. I am well aware of critics who despise that. For them, reading is an intellectual game or puzzle, the reader maintaining control by always aware of the fourth wall.

My delight in diving straight through that wall into the world of the book can leave behind that intellectual sense of control, a little like diving straight out of your bathing suit. You find the little bits of fabric floating about on the surface, and everyone suitably clad might utter urbane laughter, but oh, the sensation of water directly on the skin! I read to live other lives outside of my own.

Many of my ‘deep dive reading’ books are the ones I’ve read and reread many, many times over many years. They might not be comfort reads, or favorites, but some element draws me back.

Sometimes that passion can end. Other times it will last a lifetime. Those endless discussions of Lord of the Rings that I enjoyed as a teen have ended but I still love seeing what others think of those books as I reread them myself.

The excitement–the anticipation of what will happen–is long gone. I read Tolkien’s work more leisurely now, but with a different sort of enjoyment, in ways deeper and equally intense. Right now I’m blogging a reread over here.

Some well-loved books don’t hold up to rereading over a lifetime. There are certain Georgette Heyers, for example, that I shake my head at and bypass with a “Not this time,” though I checked them out over and over when I was a teen. Regency Buck is no longer a favorite, with its constant humiliations of the heroine at every turn, the ‘happy ending’ comprised of her falling into the arms of the guy who, eugh, mastered her. Back in the day, that was a standard plot, and we shrugged and read around it. Now, I don’t want to encounter that plot–and yet it still turns up in new books, so it’s obviously working for some readers.

But I have never in all my years tired of Pride and Prejudice, which deploys humiliation equally, the male, for all his pride, having as much to learn as the female about her prejudice. 

Pride and Prejudice has disclosed many layers that were invisible to me at the time: how new this type of story was in so many respects; the emotional cost of Delicacy (silence); the invisible rules of class. The wit and observations that I was oblivious to as a young reader, looking for romance.

I am always observing something new when I reread it, yet the irony and passion and tiny-but-true observations about human behavior continue to delight me, or to cause me to ponder when I don’t agree.

Sometimes I wonder if deep reading–uncounted rereads–over decades might bring a reader closer to the shape of the book that the author saw. If we know a text so well we can almost shut our eyes and write it verbatim, is there a chance we might be able to glimpse the work more through the author’s eyes than our own? Or is that impossible because we all come from such different life experiences?



Deep Dive Reading — 18 Comments

  1. It is a testimony to Shakespeare’s amazing genius that I still liked works of his after doing them in English. Right after.

    This is odd because I had done books in English class that I had liked before the class, and long after, but the class succeeded in fouling it for a period.

    • I liked doing Shakespeare at school–I was lucky, I think, in that the Shakespeare teachers I got all insisted we actually see a play on stage. That made ALL the difference. As a high schooler, seeing Macbeth at UCLA, was a terrific experience. (Same with opera, my sixth grade teacher taking us through Magic Flute before taking us to see it on stage–and I’ve been an opera fan ever since.)

  2. I usually disregard literary critics. IMHO they all had horrible teachers in High School. They didn’t understand classics then, so now anything they read that they can’t understand must be a classic, even if it is a garbled mishmash.

    That said, finding new things in old reads is a delight and the true mark of a classic. First you read for the plot/character. Then you re-read for nuance that enhances the plot/character. Each re-read reveals another layer. Those are the true classic books.

    • I agree. A ‘classic’ (aside from the actual Classics, I feel I have to add, with a bow to a professor long ago) is another word for ‘lifetime read.’

    • My mother explained to me the delight of the re-read, Phyl. Blessings on her memory for it. I never feel guilty when I need to re-read an old friend, although like Sherwood there were books that were re-reads that have fallen off the list, and others that hang in there, although the reasons may evolve through the years.

  3. It took me a while to comprehend this also was one of the drivers of the plot of Henry James’s Spoils of Poynton — the price of “Delicacy (silence).”

    But further! James went further than silence alone — it was the female’s sexual / physical reticence that spoiled things ultimately. A retiring, sensitive art valuing young woman — who, moreover has the mother’s support and permission, to love and marry her son, to whom the lovely property of Poynton and the art lovingly, carefully collected there — is tossed into rivalry with a crass but lively and voluptuous young woman and her mother, who have no qualms at all against using sexuality in all its forms to lure the young man into marriage.

    The iron-willed mother essentially orders Fleda to use her femininity to get her son, Owen, to kiss her, because, by the rules of the day, he would then have to marry her. And besides, he wants to! Mrs. Gereth basically lays it out and says her son is so shy and lacks so much self confidence (which all due to her being his mother and ruling everything to every detail) he won’t make a move even he wants to. Whereas that is what the other and her mother will do without a hesitation when push comes to shove — they want all the Stuff — to sell, not value.

    But Fleda cannot make herself offend her delicacy — though I should re-read it again, because it could well be that delicate Fleda’s own backbone, which turns out to be as iron in stubborness as Mrs. Gereth’s, might well have stiffened and her feathers ruffled at being ordered to behave as she does not like, even by a woman she actually likes, and for an outcome she dearly wishes.

    “Spoils of Poynton” was my gateway drug into my period of passionate discovery and admiration of James. Far from being the priggy, prissy writer that so many depict him as being, his capacity to slice and dice social and class and wealth and beauty and attractiveness within their milieus led him to daring expressions such as a mother advising a young woman to physically seduce her own young son. Which also has a great deal to do with his choices to say what he says, one thinks, at least earlier in his career. “Spoils” was the short, some call novella, that he wrote before embarking on his big novels. Those who understand what he’s saying will admire him and those who don’t won’t condemn him. After all, “Spoils” was published in 1896, and women who lost their delicacy were condemned as much as in Austen’s era.

    Or maybe even more so, at least in class aspirational circles. I can still feel the collective gasp in the room whenever, Mrs. Bennet says, “. . . there is as much of that going on here as in town. . . .” or words to that effect.

    Would James have written “Spoils” without Mrs. Bennet? or Anne Elliot’s friend in Bath? or any of the Brontes? particularly Anne’s “Tenant”? Or for that matter Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, Fielding’s Tom Jones, etc., from a more robustly expressively era?

  4. I wonder what I’d make of Billy Budd now? I read it thirty plus years ago in an ‘elective’ that I didn’t want to be in (I wanted statistics, but they canceled it that term, and the guidance counselor wouldn’t let me have a study hall instead).

    We read the book out loud in class with the teacher stopping every two or three sentences to explain what they meant. My younger sister and I were both in the class and, between us, did 90% of the reading because none of the other students could reliably pronounce all of the words. The horror of the experience was, oddly, a bonding thing between me and my sister. Even now, if one of us says, “Billy Budd!” we both respond with a shudder followed by a laugh.

    I just don’t see what anybody in that class got out of the book, and I’m really not sure why the teacher didn’t choose something else. The class was called ‘The Novel,’ and there’s not exactly a dearth of possibilities under that heading.

    • That’s pretty awesome about your sister and you.

      I wonder if the instructor loved it as much as mine did. The entire class of forty odd student sure didn’t.

  5. High school English almost ruined Jane Austen for me. We read Pride & Prejudice (which alternated years with Sense & Sensibility). I found the language tedious and got the wrong visual of Mr. Darcy (why I thought he resembled Ichabod Crane, I don’t know, but you can see how that might affect my reaction to the character!) Ditto Thomas Hardy. Ditto Charles Dickens. I escaped Moby Dick and/or Billy Budd.

    However, I’d started reading “classics” on my own in elementary school: Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, The Three Musketeers, Black Beauty (a gazillion times), Understood Betsy (ditto). By high school, I was reading Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Aldous Huxley, and the like (and discovering sf through Andre Norton). I can’t say I understood the Russian novelists, but I wasn’t intimidated by them.

    Then after college I picked up some Hardy and loved it (I was in an unhappy urban living environment, so his pastoralism appealed to me), and so the rehabilitation began. The Austen film versions provided a re-entry and I dove into the books, having expunged the image of Mr. Ichabod Darcy from my brain.

    On the subject of LotR: During college, I discovered Tolkien during college around 1966 or 1967 when a classmate (who was also a distant cousin) produced a radio version of The Hobbit and composed wonderful music for the songs. Even more than visuals, the music brought the story alive for me.

  6. Thanks again, Sherwood, for a thoughtful discussion. Yes, as a teacher, I’m saddened by the continuing shift away from literature and reading/writing skills in our educational system. We are paying the price as a culture. But mostly, I want to thank you for the wonderful paragraph about diving in to the experience of reading, like the delicious feeling of water on bare skin when swimming. Yes!

  7. You make me want to read Pride and Prejudice (for a first time). Most of my experience of the classics of literature is entirely self-led; the Florida schools I finished my required education in never touched on any of them, or not that I recall, anyway, and neither of my blue-collar parents are educated or readers. I read what I could find at the base library, which often was not much, or in Readers Digested volumes. The only college lit course I recall was an elective – The Hobbit, who could resist! I’m still filling delicious and provocative holes in my education (and I re-read my favorites often).

    • It is so full of delicious irony–I hope you enjoy it! I know sort of what you mean: my background is blue collar, too. There were no books in our house. But when we moved when I was twelve, there was a decent branch library in walking distance.

      The great thing about books is, they are there to be discovered, and some are much better at a later age. I think Pride and Prejudice is one of these.

  8. I was in an English course in High School where the final exam for the course covered everything in Grade 11 and 12. So to prep for the exam, I reread the books from grade 11 I didn’t trust myself to remember (and skipped the rather less useful notes I took in class).

    Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel had been okay while we were reading it in grade 11, especially after the teacher talked through and annotated the first page for symbolism (Thankfully, he left us to extrapolate for ourselves for the rest of the book — but he was pretty big on letting the class make its own observations).

    Reread in grade 12 outside the pressures of class to study and dissect, it hit me that I *LIKED* the book. Liked her language. Red a couple of other books of hers after.